Finding Dr. SeussSerge Bielanko
This weekend’s cinematic release of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax is a big deal, obviously.
Anytime Seuss and Hollywood rub shoulders it usually ends up being the talk of the pop-culture town and this time will be no different. Even my wife and I have been debating whether this flick could be The One: the very first one we ever take our three year old daughter to see in a theater. The Good Doctor is back and they might just run out of popcorn this time.
Yet, who is Dr. Seuss?
As in: where did he come from and what was he like?
Unless you’ve been curious before, and checked out a biography or two, chances are you don’t know much about this fellow who just so happened to write the books we all grew up on, the same ones our own kids are growing up on this minute.
The other day, as The Lorax kept showing up just about everywhere I turned, (hey, didn’t The Lorax just win the Daytona 500?) I started wondering a little about this guy, this genius writer who used art and rhythm and language so cleverly, and created some the best known stories in the universe in the process.
So I set out to move past this week’s film release, to delve a bit deeper and find out what kind of man it was who, once upon a time, closed his eyes and dreamed up some of the most magnificent stories ever told.
Here, then, is a mind-blowing tale of war and infidelity, of tragedy and booze, of patriots and thieves. Meet the man called Dr. Seuss.
New England Boy 1 of 12Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in the industrial river town of Springfield, Massachusetts in 1904. It was a city that came to have great meaning to both Geisel and the world around him because it was such an influence on so many of stories. And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, for example, was based on a boyhood trip a mile from his home, to Mulberry Street in Springfield. These days, visitors to this New England town can experience and remember Dr. Seuss, as he came to be known, by checking out the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden downtown. Sadly, a struggle to save the author's boyhood home from demolition was lost a few years ago.
A Tipple And A Brand New Name 2 of 12In the fall of 1925, Theodor Geisel was a senior at Dartmouth College. It was the height of Prohibition, but despite the dry laws Theisel threw a party one night, a party where the gin flowed free and easy. Well, guess what: he got busted and the college took extraordinary measures against him. Banned from all extra-curricular activities, including writing and drawing for his beloved campus journal, The Jack-O-Lantern. Geisel took matters into his own hands and promptly began publishing material under his middle name, Seuss (which, incidentally, had been his mother's maiden name). This time, he got away with the ruse, and six month's after graduating, while contributing to a different journal, he added a little esteemed flourish to his pen name, and Dr. Seuss was born.
Beer and Oil 3 of 12The extremely lean years of the Great Depression hit every American in some way or another. The newly married Dr. Seuss was no exception. Having had little in the way of book success yet and still struggling to make ends meet for him and his wife, Seuss took to illustrating advertisements for companies big and small. Today, looking back on his work for General Electric, NBC, Standard Oil, and Narragansett Brewing Company among others, it is fascinating to see so many of the familiar characteristics and qualities we would come to love in his books long before they became so familiar to the entire world.
Inspiration Engine 4 of 12In 1937, Dr. Seuss and his wife, Helen Palmer Geisel, were returning from Europe on board the grand Scandinavian luxury ship, Kungsholm. One day, as the story goes, the author was captivated by the cadence and the rhythm of the ships engines. Before long, he had adopted that exact rhythm and use it to write a book called And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. The book was rejected nearly thirty times over the next few years, but eventually it found a home with a publisher. And the rest is history. It ultimately became a huge success, the first of many for one Dr. Seuss.
Soldier Boy 5 of 12During World War II, Dr. Seuss turned all of his attention towards America's war effort, even joining the US Army. There, he became Commander of the Animation Department in the First Motion Picture Unit in the country's military history. The Dr. was in staunch opposition to all things Fascist and Nazi and he held little back from his wartime cartoons and films. His illustrated depictions of Hitler and Mussolini and other World War II actors and events are showcases unto themselves, often featured in special museum exhibits and books.
An Ugly Choice 6 of 12When we take into account the fact that Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss was a man committed to equality all over the world, overtly opposed to both totalitarian regimes in far off lands as well as the racism and bigotry he often saw in his own backyard, it becomes hard to understand how or why exactly he also happened to be a supporter of the United States Internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. But, for some reason, he was. And he drew some political cartoons at the time that depicted Japanese-Americans in ways that today are seen as nothing shorted of bigoted themselves. But the facts are the facts and it remains one of Dr. Seuss's shoddiest legacies.
The Cat In The Hat 7 of 12In 1954 Life magazine published a hard-hitting report about illiteracy amongst school children in America. The results were somewhat staggering. In reaction, Houghton-Mifflin, one of the nation's biggest book publishers, issued a list of 348 Important Words That School Children Should Know. They then, in turn, challenged none other than the inimitable Dr. Seuss to use 250 of these words, and just these words, in a book. What Seuss turned in was titled The Cat In The Hat. Thus, a sly-talking book-selling legendary feline was born.
Some Dark Days 8 of 12Dr. Seuss was married for four decades to his wife, Helen, whom he'd met all those years ago when he was a graduate student at Oxford University in England. But in the midst of his extramarital affair with another woman, Helen Palmer Geisel took her own life in the fall of 1967. It seems, even now, such a dark ending to such a long and adventurous marriage. Less than a year later, Dr. Seuss married his mistress, Audrey Stone Diamond, who remained his wife until his death 23 years later.
Seuss And His Kids 9 of 12Despite being arguably the single most influential and successful children's writer in the history of the world, and despite his magical way with words, and his ability to teach through rhyme and story and art, despite all of these things, it comes as a surprise to find Dr. Seuss never had any children of his own. Why? It's not that clear, really. There have been reports that his first wife was unable to bare children, but he never let on. In fact, the author was asked on more than one occasion why he had no kids of his own and his answer says it all. "You have 'em," he said," and I'll entertain 'em."
Horton Gets Ripped Off 10 of 12With great prestige and popularity comes great troubles, and that is precisely what happened late in Dr. Seuss's life when anti-abortion advocates began to take it upon themselves to adopt a famous line from the book Horton Hears A Who! for their own purpose. The line in question was "A person's a person no matter how small." In the Seuss book, of course, it has absolutely nothing to do with abortion, but that didn't stop scores of activists from using it anyway. This proved to be a mistake however as Dr. Seuss sued one Pro-Life group for stealing from him and won. And even after his passing, when groups began stealing and misusing Horton's words again, his widow continued the fight to distance Dr Seuss from the cause.
The Political Seuss 11 of 12Dr. Seuss was a lifelong member and supporter of the Democratic Party. He was a believer in equal rights (except, sadly, during the Japanese-American Internment), and absolutely detested any discrimination against African-Americans and Jews. Many of his works, like The Lorax, even though aimed at youth, yield fairly obvious opinions about a variety of injustices that Theodor Geisel saw in his world and used Dr. Seuss to address them.
Forever 12 of 12It isn't difficult to argue that Dr. Seuss is one of the greatest American writers who ever lived. Not at all. His influence on millions of young minds is likely unprecedented in literary history and to imagine that another Dr. Suess might ever come along seems unlikely at best. His are a collection of books that barely need even the slightest introduction, even decades after they first appeared, and to come across a child in this country, and so many others, who hasn't had one of his stories read to them is quite rare, indeed. Monumental legacy is something about which most people only dare to dream. But for Dr. Seuss and his vision of optimism and hope for children in the face of much adversity, each time another kid flips open one of those books, that powerful legacy inches just a little bit closer to forever.
You can also find Serge on his personal blog, Thunder Pie.